The region of doom
Top seed BC faces tough draw in Northeast bracket
The Eagles of Boston College are the top overall seed in the Men's Ice Hockey Championship, but that didn't get them any favors when it came to their opponents in the NCAA Northeast Regional, which starts Saturday in Worcester, Mass.
Among the other teams at the DCU Center this weekend are the reigning NCAA champions from Minnesota Duluth, a Maine team that's eager to exact revenge for last Saturday's loss in the Hockey East Championship and an Air Force squad that has been an absolute headache for top seeds each and every time out in the NCAA tournament.
The Northeast Regional is also arguably the most star-studded, with each of the four teams boasting a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, presented annually to college hockey's top player. Those players and more are featured in NCAA.com's guide to the players to watch in Worcester.
Boston College: The Eagles are looking to return to the Frozen Four after bowing out early last year against Colorado College. Head coach Jerry York's team is fifth in the nation in both scoring offense and scoring defense, and earned the top overall seed by beating Maine to win its third straight Lou Lamoriello Trophy as Hockey East Champions.
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While the Eagles are a high scoring team, averaging 3.52 goals per game, there's no one superstar leading the way. Five different Eagles have 30 points each or more, led by junior forward Chris Kreider. Kreider, a first-round draft pick of the New York Rangers, has 20 goals and 21 assists this season, and earned Second Team Hockey East All-Star Honors. He's followed by freshman John Gaudreau (19g, 20a), who was the MVP of both the Beanpot Tournament and the Hockey East playoffs, and finished second to UMass-Lowell's Scott Wilson in the Hockey East Rookie of the Year voting. Senior forward Barry Almeida leads the Eagles in goals with 22.
At the other end of the ice, junior goaltender Parker Milner has recored from early struggles to enter the NCAA tournament with the best winning percentage in the nation (.833). He's 25-5-0 this season with a 1.82 goals-against average (fifth in the nation) and a .931 save percentage (seventh). He gets help from a strong BC defensive corps led by Hobey Baker Finalist Brian Dumoulin. Dumoulin is one of four defensemen among the 10 Hobey finalists, and was named Hockey East First Team All-Star. Senior blueliner Tommy Cross was an Honorable Mention All-Star.
Minnesota-Duluth: The defending NCAA Champions exceeded expectations in 2011-12, spending much of the season atop the national rankings after absorbing heavy offseason losses to graduation and the pros. Head coach Scott Sandelin has the highest scoring team in the country, and senior forward Jack Connolly has been one of the biggest reasons. One of the leading contenders for the Hobey Baker Award, Connolly is second nationally in scoring with 58 points (19g, 39a) in 39 games and was named the WCHA Player of the Year. He's one of two Bulldogs on the All-WCHA First Team along with sophomore forward J.T. Brown, who leads the Bulldogs in goals with 23 and has also handed out 23 assists. He stars on the Bulldogs' top line alongside senior centerman and All-WCHA Third Team honoree Travis Oleksuk (21g, 30a) and freshman winger Caleb Herbert (13g, 19a).
Defensively, the Bulldogs allow 2.56 goals per game, with senior goaltender Kenny Reiter anchoring the defense. Reiter, a Pittsburgh native, was named to the All-WCHA Second Team after going 15-7-5 in conference play, and he's 22-8-6 overall with a 2.40 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage.
Maine: The Black Bears have not appeared in the NCAA tournament since 2007, when they advanced to the Frozen Four in St. Louis, so it'll be the first time in the tournament for a dynamic senior class led by forwards Spencer Abbott and Brian Flynn and defenseman Will O'Neill. However, Abbott - the leading scorer in the nation (20g, 41a), the Hockey East Player of the Year and a top candidate for the Hobey Baker Award - may not be able to play this weekend, having been injured last Friday in the semifinals of the Hockey East tournament. The Black Bears played versatile junior Matt Mangene on the top line with Flynn (18g, 29a) and top goal-scorer/Hockey East Second Team All-Star Joey Diamond (25g, 22a) in the Hockey East title game against BC.
Offense is the key to victory for the Black Bears, since defense has been much more of a struggle. Maine allows more goals per game (2.79) than any other team in the tournament field, although sophomore goaltender Dan Sullivan (22-10-3, 2.54 GAA, .910 SV%) has gotten the job done in net far more often than not for head coach Tim Whitehead's bunch.
Air Force: The Falcons are in the NCAA tournament for the fifth time in six years, and Frank Serratore's team always comes to play. Air Force's tournament history under Serratore is headlined by an upset of Michigan in 2009, but also includes a one-goal regulation loss to Minnesota and overtime losses to Miami (2008), Vermont (2009 regional final) and Yale (2011). This year's Falcons are well-equipped to give the Eagles all they can handle.
The Falcons are led by senior defenseman Tim Kirby, the Atlantic Hockey Player of the Year and a Hobey Baker finalist. With 12 goals and 16 assists, Kirby is third on Air Force in scoring, and leads the defensive corps that protects goaltenders Jason Torf (8-4-2, 1.72 GAA, .928 save percentage) and Stephen Caple (13-5-5, 2.16 GAA, .911 save percentage). The Falcons are the nation's third stingiest team on defense, yielding just 2.13 goals per game.
The scoring leaders up front, meanwhile, are a pair of juniors: Kyle De Laurell (15g, 23a) and John Kruse (16g, 14a). De Laurell, Kruse and Kirby are the only Falcons with double-digit goal totals, but Air Force is in the top quarter of the nation in scoring offense (3.13 goals per game - 14th) and sixth overall in scoring margin, outscoring opponents by an average of a goal per game.